His Last and First Breath

This story or scene starts at

“I should have died.” 

The words were hoarse and rough, like that desert he had breathed for most of a year. Over there …

“Don’t say that. Please, don’t say that.” Carrie held him tighter. “What about us?”

“It’s not that,” Jon said. “But sometimes there is a feeling of certainty … when it is your time. In Iraq, when we were being evacuated after our chopper was shot down, some of the guys from my squad were still … breathing. The medics talked like they could save them. But my pals … they just looked at me like it was all over. Somehow they knew they would not make it.”

“And you?”

“I knew that that time would not be it.”

“Why? How? How did you know?”

He shook his head. “Can’t explain it. At first, you are frightened, sure. And your body acts its best not to get hit. That’s instinct. But a part of you is just … in another place. And you know that this time you will not die.”

“It could be imagination … something your mind does to protect you.” She let him go, gently. She was searching for some kind of conclusion. 

The dishes were still out in the kitchen. The kids were on their way home. Life pushed its way back towards them. 

But Jon shook his head again. Like all of that ‘life’ was one enormous experience you could never be sure of. “Maybe you are right. But the other day – when I was drowning – then I felt for certain I was a goner. In a way that I had never felt in Iraq. And then …”

“Then you saw the boy.”

“Yes.”

2 days earlier … 

There had been rain all night, a defiant remnant of Hurricane Rosa. Jon had driven through it on the first part of his watch, and the morning sky had been like a whipped up ocean. As if the storm had to punish someone before it finally died out. 

It was always an event when they got weather like this in Arizona because everything was dry and seared most of the year. But not that morning. It had been useless driving more until it was all over. So Jon had pulled over for some coffee at his favorite diner in Gila Bend. 

There had been ample time to drink and chat but mostly just sit and watch the colossal shower outside coming down hard on the small desert town.

And wonder if he would do the same thing in 10 years’ time.

When the rain finally receded enough, he got back in the patrol car and headed out Pima towards Interstate 8, ignoring several small lakes now pooling on the road. He sped up and slashed through them with water spraying to all sides. Just like all the other drivers.

It was still overcast, but he had a feeling it would clear any moment.

Jon was about to turn on the radio to hear how bad Phoenix was hit when he crossed Sand Tank Wash. 

Usually a long empty scar in the landscape of gravel and dusty sand, Sand Tank Wash was just that – an invisible creek with no water. It didn’t exist until it rained. 

Now the Wash had emerged from non-existence with a vengeance. Jon could hear the roar of the water before he could see it.

From the road, about a hundred yards before he reached the bridge crossing, he could also see thin trees and bushes alongside the wash quivering, but not because of the wind, which was long dead. The torrent of water came down from the mountains with such force that it pulled out enormous chunks of dirt and gravel from the edges of the creek. 

Something else was too close to an edge.

Jon hit the brakes right in a big pool of water, and it looked like the car temporarily exploded in raindrops. 

Then down with the window. “Hey, lady – get away from there!” 

The bridge over the creek had a ‘railing’ only 3 foot high. And somebody was leaning over it. 

It was a woman who looked like she was throwing up down into the flood below. Or … was she trying to jump down into it and had decided against it at the last minute? 

Jon got out and ran across the road, barely pausing to switch on the patrol car lights. The woman stood upright at the sound of Jon’s voice. She was twenty-something and frantic with fear.

“My son is down there!”

Jon hurried to the railing. “Where? Where?!”

She pointed desperately, and now he saw the boy.

There. To the left of the bridge, but right in the raging flood. 

The boy was only about 5 or 6 and clinging for dear life to some shrubbery that careened dangerously into the water. The spindly piece of vegetation’s roots was already half out of the dirt on the side of the creek, which was collapsing into the flood.

“Do something!” The woman was simultaneously crying and also pulling at Jon’s arm, so he couldn’t do much else than trying to get her to let go.

“Stop it – ma’am.” Jon forced her away and into the arms of a trucker who had come panting over after blocking the road for further traffic with 20 tons of furniture. 

More people came running, but Jon barely registered them. The boy’s head was almost underwater now …

His mind raced. He might get some rope from somewhere. Perhaps the trucker had something useful …

Now the boy’s head disappeared momentarily underwater. But he still clung to the bush.

“Call 911!” Jon shouted at the bystanders.

Then he ran to the end of the bridge where the railing ended.  He rounded the corner and skirted down the sloping side of gravel that led to the terrain below. Here earth and vegetation were still being torn at by the sheer pressure of the water flooding through the creek.

“Hang on!” Jon yelled. Then over his shoulder to the others on the bridge: “If somebody has rope, go -”

He never finished the sentence because he knew he had to act. An absurd act, with a vanishingly slight chance of success. But the shrubbery was there, dipping in the thundering brown currents just below the bridge, and clinging on to it – the boy.

“What’s your name?” Jon called out. 

Another futile gesture by any objective standards. What did it matter? In moments, the boy might be dead, and Jon as well. But it seemed like the only thing to do, aside from the actual rescue attempt itself – or perhaps despite it. Because Jon knew, as soon as he got to the bush, that this would not work.

He desperately threw himself to the ground and clasped both his hands around the stem of the bush, trying to hold it in place. Jon could feel the roots coming loose from the soil, as he tried to get a hold of them. The soil which was also being torn loose around him and devoured by the water.  

“I will not let go!” Jon called again. “Hold on!”

“Sani … “ the boy cried.

“What?” For a moment – confusion. Then understanding. “Sani? I’m Jon. I’m a state trooper. We’re getting help. You will be all right.”

And that’s when the handful of thin branches of the bush which Sani was clinging to were ripped apart and the boy lost his grip. In the next second, he disappeared in the water.

Jon reacted instinctively, although he knew it was playing with death. He threw himself forward onto his stomach and reached out with both hands to catch the boy – hoping against all hopes that Sani would come up again. And that he could stay on the rapidly deteriorating shore.

It was a matter of balance. Only Jon’s arms were in the water. He should be able to stay out of the water since most of his weight was on land.

And that’s when the rest of the shore that held the bush, and Jon, came loose and slid into the flood. 

Several yards away from the bridge other chunks of the ground came off at the same time and splashed into the water as if a fragile cord holding them all in place had finally been cut.

For Jon, the world became one long mad howl of rushing water, which was muted every time he was pulled down in it. He struggled to avoid it, but the current – the pull – was so strong, he felt like a rag doll.

Jon went blank inside. All he could think of was getting air; big wheezing gulps, half-filled with the brown muddy water.

It was like being a fly caught in the water from a firehose. Jon knew there would be concrete slabs under Papago Street – another crossing – a few hundred yards north of the Pima Street crossing. But his ability to orient himself was near non-existent in the howling torrents. So he didn’t even know he was at the bridge until he briefly smashed into one slab, tried to hold on to it, and was then promptly sucked under again and flushed out on the other side.

Further north there were only two or three other crossings. He couldn’t remember. But none of them had bridges. It was just roads crossing the creek which was also used as a North-South throughway whenever it was dry. All of those crossing roads had to be flooded now.

There would be nothing but water until the flood died out.

Somewhere between the gulps and the panic welled up inside him, like another flood, he saw broken pieces. Little shards of his vanishing life that gave way to a sudden sadness so deep and yawning that it was like he had already died, even if the currents still tossed him around and he was faintly aware of it.

It was the sadness of losing your life. There was so much you still had to do. So much you had not done. There was his wife – his daughter – son – brother – everyone he would never see again. And the clarity of that pain was almost worse than the grimy water in his throat and lungs.

Then he felt like he was pulled down for what was the last time, but suddenly there was the sun above, which was odd, like his thoughts. Like he had dropped out of dying and was seeing it all dispassionately, wondering about the sun, the weather, if it was possible to see this or that from 5 feet below a flood … 

And then current flung him upwards again. Suddenly there was sky – air – life. Another few seconds … 

And … 

Someone … 

Outlined against the light from above the water, Jon could see the silhouette of a human.

A small one …

Jon didn’t know how he knew. Or how it could strike him with so much clarity, so he didn’t think of the lack of air. But it was the boy.

Sani!

Jon struggled and somehow kept his head above water for more than a few moments this time. It was like waking up in the middle of traffic. The world over the water was a giant thunderous rush, as waves from the flood drove him forward.

“Mister – here!”

It was the boy. It had to be.

He was on the shore at Jon’s right side. The current suddenly pushed Jon towards that shore and he grasped frantically for something – anything. But there was only more dirt and gravel being sucked down into the water. He couldn’t get a hold on anything.

“Mister! Look!”

The boy held out something for him. A hand? No, a branch? No … not that.

Jon desperately tried to reach for the boy, although it seemed insane. If the boy was reaching for him, the pull of the current would tear them both out into the roaring flood. He could not take the boy’s hand … 

“Get away!” He shouted, mouth half full of the seedy water. “Stay away!”

But the boy persistently followed him on the shore, as the current pulled him further and further alongside it, and soon back into the torrent itself.

“Mister – look!”

Then Jon saw it. The boy was not reaching for him to do some madly desperate and ultimately futile locking of hands that would just pull them both out. No, he was trying to get Jon’s attention. He was pointing … 

There was another tree, bigger, stronger. It was leaning over the water, but not because it was being uprooted. Not yet. It was merely bent that way. And its roots were deeper.

Jon knew that he would not have seen it, because he was busy panicking and coughing water out of his lungs before he swallowed more. 

It was like the tree had come out of nowhere.

*

He didn’t know how he grabbed it, much less held on. He didn’t know for how long. But at last he heard voices.

And felt … rope, hooks, hands. It was all a blur. But he was being pulled.

“You are secure. You can let go.”

Voices again. He let himself be pulled. Not by the waters, but by hands. And at last, he felt the ground again.

All kinds of voices asking questions, checking, handing him something to drink once they made sure there wasn’t more in his lungs that had to go out first. He struggled. 

Jon knew now this wasn’t the end. 

At last he recognized a voice. And there was a friendly face to go. 

Anderson.

How long had it been? There had been a road accident out near Theba …

“Anderson!” he called. 

And the face – mid-30s, curly hair, glasses – became Anderson. One of the floating voices around him was now Anderson. Real. Human. There. And someone he knew. Someone he could talk to. The flood receded.

“Is that you, Reese?” Anderson flashed a slight smile. “We have to stop meeting like this.”

“Sani!” Jon blurted. “What about Sani?”

“Who?” Anderson shook his head. Lights flashed in the background.

“The boy,” Jon said and tried to get to his feet. Anderson supported him.

“The boy … “ Anderson repeated. Understanding flashed in his eyes. “Oh, the boy … “ 

Then his voice faded. “I’m sorry. He didn’t make it.”

“What?”

“He didn’t make it.”

He must have fallen in again, was Jon’s first thought. Even if it was absurd. Sani had been on land. Running. How could he have fallen back in … the flood?

No. There had to be a mistake. Sani had been safe. Unlike Jon.

Jon grabbed Anderson’s arm. “Where is he?”

“They have him down at the bridge. Papago … “

Jon looked confused. “At Papago? But that’s …” He looked south. It was at least a mile back.

Anderson nodded gravely. Another guy who Jon did not recognize excused himself as he brushed past them to put some gear or other back into the truck with the flashing lights, one of the few that Gila Bend had on hand for occasions like this.

“I talked to Cooper on the radio while you were trying to get some freshwater in … “ Anderson tried another smile, but when he saw Jon’s face he let it fade.

“I’m going down there.” Jon took a few steps in the sand alongside the roaring Wash before he felt Anderson’s hand on his shoulder.

“They are already half-way to Phoenix,” Anderson said. “And we should get over to EMS. To get you properly checked out.”

“The hell we should … “ Jon brushed Anderson’s hand away.

“You’re welcome to take that up with your Captain.” Anderson’s voice became firmer. 

“You talked to him?”

“Well, I know Les and I know that people who have almost drowned should – “ Anderson began.

But Jon was already running.

When he reached the crossing at Papago street there was nothing, though. Only some thin iron rods barely visible above the frothing whirls on the north side of the bridge. 

*

Carrie had of course been shocked when Jon finally came home, even though he had prepared her on the phone. But he was all right. 

It had been bad, yeah. But he had had a lot of bad days on the job. This one wasn’t so different.

He had a long day and a long night trying to explain that to Carrie, though. And to the kids.

“There were so many trees,” he had said to Emma and Michael. “I would have caught one of them sooner or later. It was dangerous, but I was going to be all right.”

Michael, 10, had asked a lot of questions. Emma, 13, had said nothing. She had just given him ‘that look’. Then she hurried up to her room.

Carrie asked a lot more questions, especially later on when they were alone. He answered most of them. 

He didn’t talk about seeing Sani on the shore, though.

It was only after a day off and a debriefing with Anderson and the other responders that Jon even realized that, in fact, he had told no one that Sani had been running along the flood, on the shore, trying to make him see that tree.

So the reality that Jon agreed to was that someone had called 911 from the Pima crossing, because Sani’s mother was out of it and both Jon and Sani had gone into the water. The firefighters from Gila were closest, a few miles to the west on Papago Street just north of Pima as fate would have it. 

The firefighters had been about to split up – someone to Pima and someone to follow the flood north and look for Jon and Sani. Then a guy who was there to film it all for his YouTube storm chaser channel came running over. He had seen legs sticking out in the water under the bridge at Papago.

Sani. Right there. He was hanging upside down from a rusty iron rod that had caught him under the small Papago bridge. That’s where he had drowned. 

But they knew from the 911-call that Jon was in the water, too, so Anderson and his teammate had driven further north to see if they could find him. 

When Cooper and his colleague got Sani up back at Papago, they had tried CPR, but it was much too late. Somebody had brought Sani’s mother to the scene, and she was in pieces.  Cooper had then driven Sani’s mother to the hospital in Phoenix with the body of her son, and they had confirmed what everyone already knew. 

Sani had drowned under that bridge and over a mile south from the spot where they had found Jon. 

The geography could not be wrong. The Papago crossed Sand Tank Wash long before Jon had even seen Sani. Even if Sani had somehow made it up from the flood and then fallen back in, he would have been swept further north, not south. That was the direction the firehose was pointing. South to north. Not the other way around.

So Jon figured he had to be wrong. And  said nothing about what he had seen. He only mentioned the tree. 

At the end, when all had done their ‘choir practice’, as they called it, they soon found themselves in a diner nearby. That was the part of the debriefings that everyone always looked the most forward to. 

But Jon had no appetite. He drove home as soon as he could excuse himself.

The next day, Captain Browning had Hoffman do their own report about the incident and he asked Jon a few questions, but Hoffman seemed more than ready to get it over with. Even more than Jon.

Jon thought about trying to contact the mother. But a sinking hollow feeling came over him every time he thought about it. So it was better just to get on the road again as soon as possible.

And so the October flood of Maricopa County was over. And the story about its single casualty was over.

If you doubted it, you could always refer to the reports.

*

Weeks later …

“It’s the same shit as always,” Carrie complained. “I get home weekdays and I’m beat after the kids go to bed. I am home on weekends and I still get beat – because there is so much house-stuff leftover from the weekdays.” 

She held the beer in front of her, watching it thoughtfully, then took a big gulp.

“I know the feeling,” Jon said. “Hmm … I thought you got some drawing done yesterday?”

“I planned to.” Carrie slumped in the chair. “But then Jenna called and ‘could I please help with outfitting her gym?’”

“She’s still doing that?”

“And the children’s rooms, and the bedroom. And the garden. Oh, and the living room will be repainted again next month.” Carrie sighed, but something in the tone of her description wasn’t dismissive.

Jon frowned. “I thought you and Jenna … I thought she was good company?”

“She is …” Carrie sighed again “ … when you are a lot alone or alone with the kids. Then you need company. You even think you need hers. You even feel good about it when you’re there. But she just talks about her sons and herself. And you get home and feel just the same …”

Jon saw what she was getting at. “And you regret you didn’t stay home and got that drawing done?”

“Damn right. What a waste. The only time this month the kids are out on a Saturday and I blew it.” Carrie finished the last of the beer.

You drink like a biker, honey,” Jon made a toast in her direction. 

Carrie went to the fridge and got another beer. “When I’m angry at myself, I do.”

“We all need some things,” Jon said. “Sometimes … we just throw it up against the wall and see what sticks. You couldn’t really lock yourself in another weekend, even if it was to get something on that canvas.”

Carrie sat down again. “What do you need, Jon?”

There was silence for a moment. Carrie’s question caught him off guard. He should have seen this coming. But his mind had been elsewhere. He had really enjoyed that beer … until now.

“I guess …” Jon started “ … I guess I just need to relax a bit.”

“I thought you had.”

After the debriefings, he had been home for three days before going back to work. The Captain had insisted.

“I have … relaxed,” Jon said. 

She wetted her lips. There was little taste of beer left, of anything really. “I’m not saying you should be more home, or with the kids. I know your job pays the bills. Just …”

“Carrie, we don’t have to – you don’t have to say that every time, we -”

“But I want to, because it’s goddamn important.”

There was another awkward silence, which was filled with the echo of a fist that had slammed the kitchen table. It was Carrie’s.

She apparently became conscious of what she had done and got up from the chair. “Never mind … Just bloody never mind.”

Jon got up, too. “Wait. I know I haven’t been home much, but work is … you know.”

Carrie looked straight at him. “It’s not work. I just said that.”

Jon crossed his arms. “Then what is it?”

It was a strange little stand-off now, not unlike a thousand other standoffs. A situation that a thousand other people probably repeated right now. And the silence of the road outside would be as unchanged as ever. Perhaps that was what annoyed Carrie. 

That she had a deep feeling this wouldn’t matter – again. This time more was at stake. She knew that, too.

So she had to try. “Recently, you have been too busy even when you were home.” 

Jon looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“What do I mean …? How about that you are so busy brooding that you forget the rest of us?”

“I’m not ‘brooding’.” He looked down, then back at her.

She crossed her arms.

“Okay – okay!” He waved dismissively at her like he did when he passed a smoker on the street and accidentally got a lungful of nicotine. “I’ll try to get some more days off – even after I get back to work. This takes time. I know.”

If Carrie had noticed that he had reduced her to cigarette-smoke, she didn’t flinch. But her voice was still hard. “Do more than that. Don’t just sit here – when you are at home – with a beer and watch television. Talk to someone.”

“Who?!” Jon got up and paced around. “Who the fuck do you think I should talk to?” 

He stopped, turned towards her. His eyes were like those never-ending, gray skies in the Atlantic that Carrie had grown up with, and for a moment she flinched.

Jon hated smoke. Carrie hated bad memories. 

“You could start by talking to me …” she said.

“I’ve said all there is to say …” Jon looked out into their dilapidated garden as if he was casually inspecting it, but it was as if his breath had stopped half-way in his throat. “I can’t think of anything else to say.”

“I believe what you saw,” Carrie tried. “The problem is that you are shutting yourself down over it. As if it was you who had died …” 

She shook her head. “Sorry, that came out weird …”

“No. It’s okay.” Jon spoke quietly now, but in the tone he reserved for those men who opened the door when the wife had called and said they threatened to kill her. 

“But the problem is what I saw. It is because of that that I …” He trailed off.

She went to him and put her arms around him from behind. She let her chin rest on his shoulder. “You don’t have to. Why do you have to?”

He kept looking at the garden. The tiny pecan tree looked frail and spindly, like some of the bones he had seen in the Iraqi desert.

They had better water it soon.

The breath that was stuck in his throat had turned to a lump now. Something that felt like ash but heavy with the mud-brown water of the Tigris 15 years ago. It had coagulated on the shore like big black drops of blood, while factory buildings on the other side were burning. Or were they houses …?

“Carrie …”

“I’m here.”

He put a hand over one of hers. She was still holding him like she had always been there.

Perhaps she had. Perhaps that was why they had stayed together, despite all the yelling and shouting, especially after Emma was born. They had been together for less than a year. And then later on, when there had been more shouting, but over other things.

Sometimes the shouting died out, though. And they continued. Sometimes they talked about it later on, or sometimes they did not. They just put it to rest and continued. For the children. But also, they both knew, for each other. What else was there to do? If they couldn’t make this work, then what would happen to them?

But right now something tore in Jon. He felt Carrie near, as he always did when things got rough. She had never once tried to run or escape or bullshit him in all the years. She had called him things he’d rather forget. But she’d always been honest, and she had always been there.

But the worst part now was that he felt he … didn’t want her there. He didn’t deserve it.

*

The days passed and Jon was back to work. So for a time there was that normality.

He even inquired about Sani’s mother. Proper channels and all. The Captain didn’t approve, but said he wouldn’t prevent Jon from calling her either.

Jon found the number and got through on the first try. For about 2 minutes. He only remembered that there had been much yelling and crying at the other end, once Sani’s mother realized who he was. 

So she was angry at him. He should have … done something. It was the same with all cops. They all didn’t give a fuck about her and especially her ex. Or something. She was not coherent. She was out of it in a way that made Jon both feel concerned and sick at the same time, so it felt like a relief when she hung up on him.

But then reality settled in. Nothing had been solved by that call, quite the opposite. It had been better if he had not tried.

That’s when Jon understood he could never have the conversation he imagined with Sani’s mother, and he thought a lot about how Sani had talked to her. If at all …

I’m not even sure what the hell I imagined … that I could somehow make her son come back by telling her … 

But he never got to tell her he had seen Sani. And he wondered if he had, would it have made her hate him more? 

He had seen her son when her son was supposed to be dead. How was that supposed to make a mother feel?

*

They were in the garden. Carrie and him. It was Sunday. They were supposed to be fine. But they talked about superficial things.

Jon looked out into the garden and in the direction of the soccer game between Michael and his buddy, Ari.

Carrie frowned and pulled her legs closer to her body. It hurt to do this while sitting on the concrete step from the kitchen door and to the garden. That damn muscle she had strained last Thursday when she was rushing too much to finish all the rooms in time at the nursing home. It still wouldn’t leave her alone. But she couldn’t make herself move away. 

She was sitting beside him, after all.

Jon merely had his elbows on his knees, one hand resting lightly in the other. But she could see his hands were opening and closing, like her husband was holding an invisible object. 

Testing it. Checking. And then checking again.

There had been a shooting in a supermarket just a couple of months ago. The man with the AR15 was dead. Jon’s reflexes had been as sharp as ever. 

That was something to be relieved about, wasn’t it?

Carrie put a hand lightly on Jon’s arm. “You thinking about the supermarket again?”

“No …” He didn’t look at her, and he still didn’t look at the kids either.

“Well,” Carrie continued carefully, “you never saw doctor Maryam about those dreams, and I think you may feel … bad about shooting that man in the supermarket, even if it was the only thing you could do.”

“I don’t have the dreams anymore …” Jon said, but his voice was raw. He looked down.

“But I don’t think it has gone away,” Carrie said gently. “Maybe it … faded. But now that you survived this flood, it has all come up again.”

“Not just that,” Jon added quietly. 

She gripped his hand now and made him look at her. Lines of worry were edged in her face. They should make him react. That he could see how distressed she was. He usually did.

But he just looked away again, down on the concrete.

“We have to do something,” she said. “We should have done something long ago. This can’t go on.”

“For my sake or yours?” There it was again. A sudden flash of anger. He would do that whenever this came up. It had all become one big knot … 

She almost let go of his hand.

*

Another week went by. Then two. Then three.

Then it was Sunday again. But Jon didn’t feel like he could relax. He was usually able to zone out with TV or beer on the weekends. But this was not a usual weekend. They hadn’t been for a long time.

He and Carrie had stopped talking about ‘it’. Or rather, she had given up trying to get him to talk about it. And he had given up trying to explain to her why he could not. Talk. 

Not yet. Not like she wanted. He didn’t even understand what she wanted. Not in this case. What did she want him to say?

So he focused on the kids. On old promises. And he looked for fresh ones to keep. Anything to keep him moving. 

Maybe the creek would soon dry out again …? At least the way he imagined it. The way he always saw it when he closed his eyes now. The rage of the water. Sani’s call.

Hands slipping …

The Arizona sun was not burning this Sunday. But it was ever-present, dominating as always here in the desert. He wiped sweat off his brow, took a sip from the plastic bottle.

“Want some?” Jon held the bottle of water out towards Emma.

She shook her head. They had allowed her to grow her hair longer, and even though she was only 13, it amazed him how much she looked like Carrie already. Carrie no longer had long hair, not like when he had met her. He sometimes missed that.

He missed a lot. But he often thought he missed things that never were. Like peace. Real peace.

“Dad?” Emma looked at him closely.

“I’m coming now.” He got up. “Don’t want to get you late for gym class.”

“You promised to stay and watch.” She ran alongside him. The car was waiting. The tiles from their front door and to the driveway were warm.

“Hmm-mm,” he muttered.

The tiles were warm. Not burning. No, not burning … not yet.

“Daddy?”

“I’m all right. Get in the car.”

She did, hesitantly. Jon got in, too. He took her bag, which she had placed between her legs and flung it onto the backseat. “No baggage on the front seat while we’re driving, young lady.”

Emma nodded but kept looking at him.

“What?” Jon was about to turn the key, but now he felt like breaking it. “What?”

“Dad … why are you angry?” Emma’s eyes widened, she paled. He almost never yelled at her. That was mom’s territory.

He shook  his head. “Nothing, sweetie. Nothing – let’s go.”

He backed out of the driveway. Once they were on their way he asked, disarmingly “ – You sure you want me to see your class today?”

It took her longer to say yes than he liked. But he knew why. There was a cause and effect to everything. 

Except what happened in Gila Bend.

Everything he had found a shelf for, fighting for 15 years to put behind him. He had found all of that again – in that creek at Gila Bend.

And it was all about cause and effect that didn’t add up. That never added up.

Carrie didn’t ask Jon about it when they got home, even though Jon knew Emma had told her mum about all that happened. 

Emma was like that. She didn’t get along well with Carrie lots of times, under normal circumstances. 

But somehow when her world began to crack, the first place she looked for understanding was with her mother. Jon told himself that that was all right, and that there were good reasons why he was not number one on her list, like when she was younger. Especially now. 

But as the days passed, he found himself thinking more and more that it was a problem that had to be solved. Because Emma avoided him. It was obvious.

And there it was again. Cause and effect. 

He argued with Carrie now every evening, sometimes – most times – over paltry things. 

They had done that in periods, sure, especially when the kids were small. But this had come after Gila. And there was a black chasm, he felt, that opened wider and wider between them, even if it was just about who had forgotten to wash the car.

It was this tone in their voices that became more and more distant and at the same time vigilant and tensing up like there was only one way this could go. Like before, they had gone in for the attack, all those years ago. 

Or when they had waited in the dark for someone else to attack, although it often came to nothing. Voices took on a special quality during those times, even when it was just whispers between the soldiers. There was always the tinge of steel, even below reassuring words. 

For every time he actually did try to talk about it, somehow they ended up arguing and arguing about things that had absolutely nothing to do with what was wrong. 

*

The night was black and the road outside devoid of sound. The suburban beehive had gone to sleep. 

But Jon couldn’t. There was something in the silence that kept pulling him back from the brink of sleep. Like something or someone was waiting. 

Like there was an enemy out there.

But there wasn’t. There had not been enemies in the dark for 15 years now. He had to tell himself that.

Still … no sleep.

It was the most disconcerting experience – not being able to sleep – because usually he could sleep the best when there was complete quiet in the house. He had a collection of earplugs to rival that of a pro musician. Now the quiet was the enemy.

And then it was broken. “Honey?”

Carrie …

When he didn’t answer her she turned in their bed so she faced him. He realized he was still lying down on his back, as he had for the last 2 hours, staring into the ceiling. He wanted to move, but didn’t feel like it. But now he had to do something.

Carrie frowned. “You’re not asleep?” 

“So it looks …”

There was more silence, but this time it was the problematic silence of just having taken that tone with her. The tone she hated. The tone that hid all sorts of things. But he didn’t feel like talking about it, and she knew it.

So let her decide what to do … 

“What are you thinking about?”

“What do you think?”

Carrie shrugged, but her shoulders were already tense. “I dunno – sex?”

“Ha!” Jon exclaimed, but only slightly relieved.

“Well, it’s not as if we … you know … too much … “

“Yeah, I know.”

“But you weren’t thinking about that, obviously.”

He sighed. Didn’t answer.

Jon wanted to reach out, but he felt numb. Why the hell couldn’t he just do one simple thing?

Why couldn’t he just say what he felt … because of Gila Bend?

And the boy … ?

But that was the problem.

He could feel it like he had felt that brown water in his lungs … but he couldn’t say what it felt like.

And every time he tried, the knot inside became more and more twisted, until he knew he couldn’t say anything at all.

So they got into their usual argument and she went to sleep on the couch, like she had done 3 nights in a row now. In one week.

Jon didn’t stay in bed. He got up and got some clothes on. Then he went outside and began pacing the quiet street. 

Everything looked so frail in the gossamer light of the street lamps. Every house looked like cardboard. The sidewalk was thin, he felt, like the rock and sand of the desert could come through at any moment and reveal just how much there was down there. How thin this entire city of Yuma was … this way of living.

This could not go on.

Jon went back to get the car. 

*

It was less than two hours’ drive to Gila Bend from Yuma. It was night now, so that made it even less.

The town’s streets were empty at this hour, as he had expected, which suited him fine. So he went to the Pima crossing first. Right where he had seen Sani’s mother that day. 

Below, he could see how the Wash had almost drained of water again. It was reverting to its non-existence. Like a road accident. 

When a truck hit you out of nowhere and then sped away, leaving only death and chaos. But when you finally came to your senses again, all you had was a wrecked car and screams and blood and quiet and kids’ chests that weren’t heaving.

And your mind refused the scenario. This could not happen to you. But there it was. And then your body acted. The body always knew what to do, even if the mind had to catch up.

Just like in war.

Jon stared into the darkness. 

Then it came over him. “Fuck you … “

He waited, almost as if he had to assure himself that there was no one else around. But aside from a few lights from the nearby Palms Inn there was no one. Not even a passing car.

Jon didn’t look. He couldn’t care less if anyone heard him. He just waited because he had to find the right words. Like taking aim.

“Fuck you, you little son of a bitch. Fuck you to hell.”

The words were meaningless, but that’s how he felt. Even though everything in him screamed: No!

You should not feel like that. You survived. You should not be angry. Especially not at that poor kid who drowned.

Instead of you.

There it was.

Instead of you.

Just like in Iraq. It was always someone else. Not him.

Like in L.A. where he had grown up, trying to survive and help his frail little brother survive, when their father had given up on that responsibility and their mother was long gone.

San Pedro, L.A., was sometimes like Iraq. And sometimes it was the kids from such a place they sent over there – to fight. For the US of A.

Jon noticed that he hadn’t breathed for … a long time. But only when his body did it for him. He had held back. Now it was like coming up to the damn surface after almost being pulled under for good. You hurt inside. Your body forced you to  … breathe. But what if there was nothing to breathe?

At least there was now. But for how long … ?

He felt himself sinking down again, staring into the darkness, opening and closing his fists. Then there was a voice.

“You …”

He turned and saw her.

Jon hadn’t really gotten a good look at her that day. But now that she was here he was not in doubt.

Sani’s mother had long hair, black as the night, unkempt. She wore an old leather jacket and tattered jeans. The same clothes, he now remembered, that she had worn that day. Night was in her eyes, too. But also a distant glow reflected from one of the lonely street lamps along Pima.

Jon said nothing. He just nodded. He had closed his fists again.

For long moments they just stared at each other.

Then the mother said: “I come here every night to beg forgiveness. Have you come for that, too, officer?”

Jon looked away, but only briefly. “I don’t know why the hell I have come …”

“I know why I have.” She went over to the low railing, still at least 5 yards from Jon. She looked down into the dying Wash.

“For ‘forgiveness’ … “ Jon repeated quietly. “I’m not even sure what that means … “ 

He looked down over the bridge railing as well. As if Sani would somehow be more alive if they looked at the place where he had last been alive. As if memories could become more real by clinging hard to them. Like tree branches …

Sani’s mother coughed a little. “I … he didn’t like me much.” 

She was still looking out in the darkness on her own. For a moment, Jon felt she was talking more to herself than him.

“He was running away that day,” she continued. “We had some arguments. We had lots of them. I … may have hit him.”

Jon shook his head again. “You don’t have to tell me this.” 

He was still processing the fact that she had come here – at the same time as him. That it wasn’t just a fluke, a crazy unbelievable coincidence.

But the more he dared to look at the shadows on her face, the more he became convinced it wasn’t. She was telling the truth. She did come here every night. Perhaps all night.

She finally turned towards him, realizing the implication of where this was going.

“I never told the police that part. But now I have.” She huffed. “Perhaps I was waiting to be able to do that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jon said. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”

She looked like she wanted to say something again, but he shook his head to stop her. 

“Even if I did,” he said, “it doesn’t matter. You didn’t … kill your son.”

A lone car passed by. For a long time Jon eyed its fading lights. Then he braced himself.

“There is something you should know,” he started.

Now it was her turn to shake her head. “Don’t tell me. That you are here is enough. And I’m not angry with you. I’m sorry about that day … when you called.”

“But this is important,” Jon pressed. “And it’s not about the call. It’s about Sani.”

She began backing away. “I don’t want to hear it … “ 

Jon felt something boil in him, just like before. Why the hell was everything so difficult? Why the hell was the world made up this way? Why didn’t anyone just listen to him? 

He held her back. “You have to hear this.”

She struggled. “I don’t want to.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

Then he let her go. What could he tell her? That he had seen Sani after he was supposed to have been dead? Jon didn’t even believe in God or anything himself. He didn’t believe it was possible.

What if it had been stress? His mind playing tricks? He was drowning, after all.

But everything had been so clear. He was as sure that Sani had been there as if it had been Emma or Michael.

But what could he tell her? What if he offended her religion by telling her? What if she didn’t have a religion?

And … no matter what he told her, it wouldn’t bring Sani back, would it? It wouldn’t make it all better. It wouldn’t erase the fact that an innocent child had died, and he had lived. 

When it should have been the other way around.

Then he discovered that Sani’s mother had not run away. She stood there, on the pavement, very close now. Her face was streaked with tears.

“You saw him, too, didn’t you?”

Jon swallowed. “How do you – “ 

But she interrupted. “I mean, I dream about him. You dream about him, too, don’t you?”

He took a deep breath. The first real breath, it felt, since he had been pulled from the flood.

“Yes,” he said. “I dream about him, too.”

“What does he do in your dreams?” Her voice was close to a whisper.

“He … “ Jon felt something push in his chest, like a thousand knots. “He …”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m sorry I am like that. I was … I would like to hear it now.”

“He tells me he is okay,” Jon finally said. “Yeah, that’s what he tells me.”

“But you can’t believe it?”

“Not really.” A resigned smile made its way over his lips for the first time. 

“I can’t either,” she said. “But I would like to.”

“Me too.”

She gave him a quick hug, and then she started walking away again. Briskly. As if the hug had been the actual crime.

He stared after her, but didn’t move. 

She stopped and turned slowly. “You can call me again, if you want to. But now I have to go home.”

Jon just nodded and held up his hand. 

Then he pulled out his cell phone. He wasn’t sure why, because he hadn’t called Sani’s mother from that phone. Her number would be at the station – not on his private phone.

Then he remembered why.

And the phone was full of messages. From Carrie. And one from Emma. 

He unmuted the phone and called.

*

Last updated 27 Feb 2021

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